Why you have a fear of failure in your sport

In this article, we explore the underlying reasons why many athletes carry a deep fear of failure. We examine internal and external factors that together contribute to this common but often hidden feeling. By understanding these drivers, athletes can begin the process of overcoming their fear and reaching their full potential.

Picture of Av: Tommy Davidovic | Cert. Coach (CPCC, PCC, CTPC) & Mental Tränare.
By: Tommy Davidovic | Cert. Coach (CPCC, PCC, CTPC) & Mental Trainer.

In the world of sport, where hard work and the pursuit of greater success are commonplace, athletes often struggle not only with their physical opponents, but also with an invisible inner saboteur - the fear of failure. Despite physical talent, technical skill and strong motivation, many athletes carry a deep-seated fear of not being good enough, or not living up to their own expectations. Why is this so common among athletes? And how can it affect their performance and relationship with their sport?

Self-image and self-esteem in sport: A fear of not being enough

Strong and healthy self-esteem and self-image are crucial components of mental health, performance and the ability to cope with temporary adversity in sport. How an athlete views themselves, the strength of their belief in their own abilities and their relationship with their self-confidence has a significant impact on how they deal with external adversity and the inherent fear of failure.

Strong self-esteem: a vital component for you as an athlete

Self-esteem is the fundamental belief in one's own value as a human being. In sport, self-esteem becomes a key element in navigating through challenges, setbacks and difficulties. An athlete with healthy self-esteem and strong self-confidence will see failures as temporary obstacles on the road to continuous development rather than as personal shortcomings. Low self-esteem can reinforce the fear of failure, as any performance that does not meet the often high standards and expectations is perceived as a threat to one's value as a human being.

An athlete's self-image: Dependence on performance results

An athlete's self-image is often linked to the need to perform, win and outperform the opposition. Having a relationship with your sport where you need to perform in order to feel valuable can lead to feelings of emptiness and ill health in athletes, even though it may feel good in the moment. They also risk losing their passion for their sport, which is often the focus at the beginning of their career. If the self-image is based on and motivated by success and achievement, failures will be interpreted as personal defeats. This creates anxiety about not living up to one's own expectations and can lead to an overriding fear of failure in competitions, matches and training sessions.

External press: A catalyst for motivation or performance anxiety in athletes?

In a competitive environment, the coach and teammates play a crucial role in the athlete's development, motivation to perform better, enjoyment and sense of belonging in experiencing the journey with others. However, environmental pressures and demands can become overwhelming and contribute to athletes' mental health problems and fear of failure.

Coaches' expectations and influence: an important role 

Coaches play a key role in an athlete's physical, technical and mental development. The coach can either strengthen or undermine the athlete's confidence and self-esteem. A constant stream of negative signals, criticism or lack of positive feedback can sow seeds of fear of failure. The coach's behaviors, words and body language have the power to influence the athlete's mental state and attitude before training, competitions or matches. In addition, if the coach's expectations and demands are unrealistic or unclear, the athlete will struggle to meet these standards, which in turn can hamper performance. We all perform best with clearly set goals that largely match our actual ability, this is the role of the coach to keep track of and also communicate in an educational way so that you can make use of the knowledge. 

Competition and performance requirements: a two-way street 

In competitive environments, the quest for more playing time, higher ranking points and future opportunities is part of everyday life for athletes who want to climb the career ladder. When the focus is too much on results, values or comparisons, either from the environment or from the athlete themselves, a deep fear of failure can take shape. The feeling of being constantly judged and compared to teammates or opponents can create intense pressure, with each performance seen as crucial to maintaining or improving one's position within the team or against one's opponents. This competitive situation has both advantages and disadvantages, as it stimulates challenge and development, but at the same time can reinforce the fear of being inadequate compared to others.

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Managing and overcoming your fears 

To unlock their full potential and enjoy challenging themselves in sport, athletes need to learn to manage and gradually overcome their fears. What strategies and insights are needed to navigate through the fear of failure? And how can athletes build a stronger mental foundation to overcome challenges and find joy in their sport?

Change your approach and relationship with failure

Admitting to yourself that you have a fear of failure is the first step towards learning how to deal with it. By changing your approach to something less dualistic, you can become less afraid of failure. If you do not tie your identity to performance and results, but instead value and focus on the process, joy and learning, you can build a more sustainable foundation. This attitude frees the athlete from the fear of not being good enough in their own eyes or in the eyes of others, in turn opening up the opportunity to start enjoying their sport more and performing more consistently and with their confidence intact.

Balance between challenge and support

There will always be external pressure, but by finding a healthy balance between challenge and encouragement, the athlete can grow and develop. Coaches, parents and others around the athlete should therefore actively work to create an environment where failure is seen as a natural part of the development process, and encourage the courage to make mistakes in order to learn. By supporting, encouraging and creating a culture that values effort and development rather than perfection and results, athletes will gradually begin to unlock their potential.

It requires work

All athletes, regardless of level, sport or experience, feel a fear of failure. The difference is not that some elite athletes do not feel fear, but rather how they perceive the situation. All it takes for an athlete's fear of failure to manifest itself is for the situation to be sufficiently uncertain and sufficiently important to them. In other words, fear of failure is perfectly normal. However, you might want to consider whether this fear manifests itself before every competition. It is one thing to be afraid of failure on special occasions, but quite another if it happens often. It is also important to understand that just like in the physical and technical part of sport, it will take work and training to develop. This can be practiced on your own, but you can also seek support and get competent help through mental training or sports psychology counseling.

For those who want to know more

If you are an athlete who is curious about what mental training is and how it can help you in your sports career, you can read more about mental training here

If you want to read more about what we offer for mental training, you will find the programs here.

And if you have a question or want to get in touch directly, you can contact us here.

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About the author

Picture of Tommy Davidovic
Tommy Davidovic

Cert. Coach (CPCC, PCC, CTPC) & Mental Trainer who helps athletes get guaranteed change and results fast. Creator of the Flow Mindset method that has helped athletes around the world break their old records and made competition fun again.

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